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To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party

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Told in riveting, keenly observed poetry, a moving first-person narrative as experienced by a young survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846. The journey west by wagon train promises to be long and arduous for nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves and her parents and eight siblings. Yet she is hopeful about their new life in California: freedom from the demands of family, ma Told in riveting, keenly observed poetry, a moving first-person narrative as experienced by a young survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846. The journey west by wagon train promises to be long and arduous for nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves and her parents and eight siblings. Yet she is hopeful about their new life in California: freedom from the demands of family, maybe some romance, better opportunities for all. But when winter comes early to the Sierra Nevada and their group gets a late start, the Graves family, traveling alongside the Donner and Reed parties, must endure one of the most harrowing and storied journeys in American history. Amid the pain of loss and the constant threat of death from starvation or cold, Mary Ann’s is a narrative, told beautifully in verse, of a girl learning what it means to be part of a family, to make sacrifices for those we love, and above all to persevere.


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Told in riveting, keenly observed poetry, a moving first-person narrative as experienced by a young survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846. The journey west by wagon train promises to be long and arduous for nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves and her parents and eight siblings. Yet she is hopeful about their new life in California: freedom from the demands of family, ma Told in riveting, keenly observed poetry, a moving first-person narrative as experienced by a young survivor of the tragic Donner Party of 1846. The journey west by wagon train promises to be long and arduous for nineteen-year-old Mary Ann Graves and her parents and eight siblings. Yet she is hopeful about their new life in California: freedom from the demands of family, maybe some romance, better opportunities for all. But when winter comes early to the Sierra Nevada and their group gets a late start, the Graves family, traveling alongside the Donner and Reed parties, must endure one of the most harrowing and storied journeys in American history. Amid the pain of loss and the constant threat of death from starvation or cold, Mary Ann’s is a narrative, told beautifully in verse, of a girl learning what it means to be part of a family, to make sacrifices for those we love, and above all to persevere.

30 review for To Stay Alive: Mary Ann Graves and the Tragic Journey of the Donner Party

  1. 5 out of 5

    Krista the Krazy Kataloguer

    Like her earlier novel in verse, Caminar, this book is about a true historical disaster, the Donner Party. Brown skillfully uses poetry, in different forms, to convey the range of emotions of one family, the Graves family, as they journey west with the Donner Party. What these people suffered before they ever reached Donner Pass was unbelievable. I don't know if I could have withstood the sore feet, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, sweating, freezing, never bathing, and fear that these people endured Like her earlier novel in verse, Caminar, this book is about a true historical disaster, the Donner Party. Brown skillfully uses poetry, in different forms, to convey the range of emotions of one family, the Graves family, as they journey west with the Donner Party. What these people suffered before they ever reached Donner Pass was unbelievable. I don't know if I could have withstood the sore feet, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, sweating, freezing, never bathing, and fear that these people endured. But that was nothing compared to the unimaginable suffering at Donner Pass, as they were forced to winter there and, eventually, eat some of their own dead. Brown tells the story from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves, a teenager who was part of the first party that tried to make it out of the pass and find help. Brown includes a photo of the real Mary Ann Graves at the end of the book, and more about her life after surviving the Donner Party. Brown also includes a list of all those in the party, indicating who survived and who died. It's a disaster that should never have happened. As many times as I've read about this tragedy, I can never wrap my mind around how so many actually survived (half the party) those dreadful conditions. This novel would be a good introduction to the disaster for young adults, especially combined with George R. Stewart's Ordeal by Hunger. Highly recommended!!

  2. 5 out of 5

    ireadrosies

    Definitely keep this historical fiction title in mind for displays and book lists related to the theme of "Nevertheless, she persisted." The desperation by the end made my teeth chatter. Wilderness survival adventure told in verse from the point of view of 19 year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the 1846-1847 journey west with the Donner Party. Everything about this feels more YA than middle grade to me: the narrative style, the cover, the age of the main character, the real life horror that led to Definitely keep this historical fiction title in mind for displays and book lists related to the theme of "Nevertheless, she persisted." The desperation by the end made my teeth chatter. Wilderness survival adventure told in verse from the point of view of 19 year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the 1846-1847 journey west with the Donner Party. Everything about this feels more YA than middle grade to me: the narrative style, the cover, the age of the main character, the real life horror that led to cannibalism. Very quick to read - I couldn't put it down.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Rachael Fryman

    Six word summary: Do we eat him? We gotta. Loved: The story through poems allowed for creative layouts in the text that really added to the emotional setting. Recommend for: History fans who love interesting stories, preferably if you like poetic formatting. Reminds me of: Milk and Honey meets the Oregon Trail game.

  4. 4 out of 5

    R. G. Nairam

    Once I found out this was about the Donner Party I SHOULD HAVE STOPPED

  5. 5 out of 5

    The Book Girl

    This was such a beautiful book. It was gritty, horrifying, real, and extremely deep. To Stay Alive is a story told in short poems that tell the fictionalized yet somewhat true story of Mary Ann Graves. Who was a member of the tragic Donner party. The author tells the story straight up. She makes is engaging but honest. She tells the really gruesome parts without sensationalizing things. She really shares the horrible and bleak things that the pioneers faced. The boring parts, the dirty parts, an This was such a beautiful book. It was gritty, horrifying, real, and extremely deep. To Stay Alive is a story told in short poems that tell the fictionalized yet somewhat true story of Mary Ann Graves. Who was a member of the tragic Donner party. The author tells the story straight up. She makes is engaging but honest. She tells the really gruesome parts without sensationalizing things. She really shares the horrible and bleak things that the pioneers faced. The boring parts, the dirty parts, and the sad and somber parts are all shown in great detail. This isn't an easy read, however, it is a good and important one. I love the main character, Mary Ann. While her voice seems mature it was important to remember that she was a fairly young girl when everything happened. I loved how she was emotional and loveable. She cared for her family and was a great sister to her younger brother Frank, hold him when she was exhausted and tired. Her voice created a tone for the story. One of hunger, sadness, hope, horror, excitement. It was interesting watching her grow through out the story. I love free verse poetry, it works so well for this story. Overall it is a great story. It is a quick read but not a light read. There were parts of this book at the end that made me put the book down and think a lot. I feel like this book will stick with me for a while. I find myself wondering what I would have done on the trail. Would I have followed the same path? It would have been very difficult making some of those choices. It really was eye-opening. Glad I picked it up at the library will be buying it for sure.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Cheryl Gladfelter

    Some of the most beautiful writing I've read this year, these poems tell the story of Mary Ann's family's journey west towards California and their fight for survival when the snow comes and they're trapped. Knowing what happens to the Donner party just makes the story fraught with tension as you start getting attached to the different people Mary Ann knows and you wonder who will survive and who won't. Any book that can make me cry at work is legit. Some of the most beautiful writing I've read this year, these poems tell the story of Mary Ann's family's journey west towards California and their fight for survival when the snow comes and they're trapped. Knowing what happens to the Donner party just makes the story fraught with tension as you start getting attached to the different people Mary Ann knows and you wonder who will survive and who won't. Any book that can make me cry at work is legit.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Amy Layton

    Realizing this book was about the Donner Party made me want to read this novel like you wouldn't believe.  I mean, winter, the Oregon Trail, cannibalism?  Sign me up.  What I already knew was a horrendous and terrible history in our journey west ended up giving me goosebumps, stomachaches, and lots and lots of moments where I just needed to take a minute and gather myself.   Told from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves, we join her and her family as they begin to travel west and leave behind ev Realizing this book was about the Donner Party made me want to read this novel like you wouldn't believe.  I mean, winter, the Oregon Trail, cannibalism?  Sign me up.  What I already knew was a horrendous and terrible history in our journey west ended up giving me goosebumps, stomachaches, and lots and lots of moments where I just needed to take a minute and gather myself.   Told from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves, we join her and her family as they begin to travel west and leave behind everything they knew.  I knew what was going to happen the whole time, and the more and more I flipped the pages, the less I wanted to continue.  Every time they took a day to stop and celebrate and gather their bearings, I wanted to yell at them to keep going, to not take their food and flour and water for granted.  And yet, how could they have possibly known what lay ahead for them?   Reading this gave me a new perspective to this, a more personal look on a tragic history.  And I loved it and hated it.  This was more horrific than other horror books that I've read, from King to Koontz to even classic horror.  The dawning realization that it's too cold to move on, that there's no more food, that there's no more water, that there's no way to continue other than making bone broth over and over from the bone, no way to continue than eating the bone mush because there's nothing else to eat, the realization that there's a better shot living by freezing to death in the mountain pass as opposed to starving to death in the mountain cabin, the realization that your frozen friends and family is the only meat you've seen in weeks... The epilogue is fantastic, it lets readers know the fate of the Donner Party, the fate of Mary Ann Graves and her family.  It briefly details the rest of her life, shows pictures, allows for an ending that is historic, factual, and whole. I booktalked this to all of my friends, to all of my coworkers, to anybody who has an interest in history, in cannibalism, in horrific stories, in poetry (I mean, it is a book in verse, after all).  Skila Brown does a phenomenal job of describing the terrors the hunger the darkness.  This is probably one of the best books I've read all year, and will definitely go on my favorites list.  Even weeks later, I still think about this book, the kind of feeling that it gives me, the kind of questions it asks.   If you had to, would you eat your friends and family to stay alive?  How can you possibly live with that decision?  How do you go the rest of your life knowing that you've eaten your friends and family?  Was it worth it?   Review cross-listed here!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Autumn

    Pasted right from the kids' books blog I share with my daughter: https://bookhogsbookblog.wordpress.com/ This is a novel told in verse. It takes a few pages to get used you to but then you don’t even realize except you are flying through the pages. The subject of the story is a family’s journey across the America from Illinois to California in 1846. The main character is from the Graves family who was part of the wagon train of the famous Donner Party who tragically got stranded in the mountains d Pasted right from the kids' books blog I share with my daughter: https://bookhogsbookblog.wordpress.com/ This is a novel told in verse. It takes a few pages to get used you to but then you don’t even realize except you are flying through the pages. The subject of the story is a family’s journey across the America from Illinois to California in 1846. The main character is from the Graves family who was part of the wagon train of the famous Donner Party who tragically got stranded in the mountains during an early winter and had to struggle to survive. If you know the story of The Donner Party, you know what comes next. But Brown treats it very well through the eyes of Mary Ann Graves. Maya asked me why I wanted to read a story like this (and said ‘no way’ when I told her she should read it). Good question, one I had to think about before finally answering: I like to read about bravery, I like to read about average people who persevere and fight to survive. I like to read about how much the human body and spirit can endure and the strength of mind, the will it takes to survive. This was a beautifully written story and one that I hope will inspire young people to look for more books on The Donner Party and their covered wagon migration across our country before the time of cars, electronics and microwaves, when books were prized possessions and when girls wore dresses and petticoats while fetching water from the well or river to help their mother cook. Recommended for grades 6 to 9

  9. 5 out of 5

    Eva Seyler

    I picked up this book because the cover was so beautiful that I had to look at it more closely, and when I saw it was about the Donner Party I didn't even hesitate. (I know, I'm so morbid. XD) When I finally got around to reading it, I was surprised that the story was written as a series of poems (a bit like Brown Girl Dreaming, which I also loved), and it was a pretty quick read because the poems generally don't fill a full page. It was very thought-provoking and moving and well-done. I highly I picked up this book because the cover was so beautiful that I had to look at it more closely, and when I saw it was about the Donner Party I didn't even hesitate. (I know, I'm so morbid. XD) When I finally got around to reading it, I was surprised that the story was written as a series of poems (a bit like Brown Girl Dreaming, which I also loved), and it was a pretty quick read because the poems generally don't fill a full page. It was very thought-provoking and moving and well-done. I highly recommend it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Laura Gardner

    I have a weird fascination with the Donner party. I read an adult supernatural thriller based on Mary Ann Graves' journals this winter (The Hunger by Alma Katsu), but I liked this book even better. This meticulously researched #novelinverse is an awesome addition to our middle school library. The verse format is perfect for at conveying the horror of the situation! Grades 5+. 4.5/5 I have a weird fascination with the Donner party. I read an adult supernatural thriller based on Mary Ann Graves' journals this winter (The Hunger by Alma Katsu), but I liked this book even better. This meticulously researched #novelinverse is an awesome addition to our middle school library. The verse format is perfect for at conveying the horror of the situation! Grades 5+. 4.5/5

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lorelei

    3.5/5 I am on a roll with verse books and I didn't even do it on purpose. ♥ The verse really helped set up the world physically, mentally, and emotionally. While I didn't feel too indebted to any one character (except maybe Charlie), the perils that these families faced were bleak, yet true examples of humanity's will to survive. We are animals after all. 3.5/5 I am on a roll with verse books and I didn't even do it on purpose. ♥ The verse really helped set up the world physically, mentally, and emotionally. While I didn't feel too indebted to any one character (except maybe Charlie), the perils that these families faced were bleak, yet true examples of humanity's will to survive. We are animals after all.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Terry Maguire

    This is a carefully researched and powerful retelling of the tragedy of the Donner Party, told from the point-of-view of 19-yr-old Mary Ann Graves (the real Mary Ann Graves would have been 16 at the time of the mountain crossing). I've recommended this book to students who had never read novels-in-verse and they loved it. Beautiful writing & deals with the events in a way that is not too graphic for middle grade readers. This is a carefully researched and powerful retelling of the tragedy of the Donner Party, told from the point-of-view of 19-yr-old Mary Ann Graves (the real Mary Ann Graves would have been 16 at the time of the mountain crossing). I've recommended this book to students who had never read novels-in-verse and they loved it. Beautiful writing & deals with the events in a way that is not too graphic for middle grade readers.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Maddie

    Beautifully written novel in verse about Mary Ann Graves, who was a real-life member of the Donner Party. I read this in one sitting because I couldn't put it down. Definitely inspired strong feelings of horror and awe. Beautifully written novel in verse about Mary Ann Graves, who was a real-life member of the Donner Party. I read this in one sitting because I couldn't put it down. Definitely inspired strong feelings of horror and awe.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Serina

    A historic western was nice change of pace, but I would have preferred it in regular story mode. Books written in poetry really need to flow in order for me to enjoy. This one was a little too disjointed. It did have an afterward that I always think are interesting..... DNF @30 of 275

  15. 5 out of 5

    Haley

    4.5 stars-Haunting and with truth. A sad story told with tons of emotion that at times made me feel right there with them, trenching through the snow and not looking back.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Becky

    First sentence: It is finished. Premise/plot: I've got two sets of 'two words' that will either compel you to pick this one up or to avoid it. For better or worse. First: DONNER PARTY. Second: VERSE NOVEL. Mary Ann Graves is the narrator of this historical verse novel. She was nineteen at the start of the journey in the spring of 1846. This one is divided into seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter. Almost all of the poems involve the traveling west and surviving aspect of the pioneer spirit. The First sentence: It is finished. Premise/plot: I've got two sets of 'two words' that will either compel you to pick this one up or to avoid it. For better or worse. First: DONNER PARTY. Second: VERSE NOVEL. Mary Ann Graves is the narrator of this historical verse novel. She was nineteen at the start of the journey in the spring of 1846. This one is divided into seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter. Almost all of the poems involve the traveling west and surviving aspect of the pioneer spirit. The landscape and environment do feature in quite a bit. Especially the SNOW. What this book is not is Little House On the Prairie. This isn't even THE LONG WINTER. People do have tendencies to group books together. That is why I think it is important that DONNER PARTY leap out at you first before you hear of wagon trains, prairies, pioneers, homesteaders, or going west. My thoughts: There is a bareness to the poems that oddly enough works for me. The narrator does not wear her heart on her sleeve. She's not overly dramatic and sensitive. She doesn't speak of her dreams and feelings and there is absolutely no gushing. (She's no Ann-with-an-e Shirley.) When I say the poems avoid gushing, I don't mean they are void of description and detail. The men think they're/ following a trail, a road/ well marked by wheels/ and feet, like a street,/ pointing you/ in the direction you need/ to go. But I know./ We follow a trail of broken things/ tossed from wagons--family heirlooms/ so heavy with memories/ the oxen couldn't pull--/ quilts, spinning wheels, dishes (too much/ dust to see the pattern), wooden bits,/ once part of something rich,/ portraits of great-grandmothers/ who'll spend eternity in the desert,/ watching beasts pull treasures/ while dirty people trail behind. Some poems are long, descriptive. Others are very short and bare. this land/ has eaten/ my feet/ chewed them/ ripped them/ cut them/ they bleed/ into land/ that drinks/ them up/ but it is never full I am so glad I did not read anything about the Donner party as a child when I was obsessed with Laura Ingalls!!!

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    A compelling historical novel in verse about the famed (and tragic) Donner party. The focus, though, is on Mary Ann Graves, one of the younger women in the group traveling from Lacon, IL, to California. This is the kind of book that will have big appeal to those who like stories of the west, of historical travel, and fans of books like Little House on the Prairie (with quite a bit less racism, though in the context of this book specifically, it's a historically accurate portrayal of settlers mee A compelling historical novel in verse about the famed (and tragic) Donner party. The focus, though, is on Mary Ann Graves, one of the younger women in the group traveling from Lacon, IL, to California. This is the kind of book that will have big appeal to those who like stories of the west, of historical travel, and fans of books like Little House on the Prairie (with quite a bit less racism, though in the context of this book specifically, it's a historically accurate portrayal of settlers meeting Native Americans). On the verse level, much of it worked, though I found some of the stylization to be a little distracting. It worked especially well near the end with how exhausted and scared and emaciated and mind-sick Mary Ann was, but sometimes in the middle, the way the poem was laid on the page didn't necessarily add much.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ashley

    4 Stars Gritty, real, horrifying, hopeful. These are the words that can be used to describe To Stay Alive , which tells in short poems the fictionalized yet true story of Mary Ann Graves, a member of the tragic Donner Party. Brown tells the story as it is. While she manages to keep it engaging, she never sensationalizes, which really draws out the bleakness and monotony that these pioneers faced. It doesn't make the story dull. In fact, it manages to maintain the integrity of the nonfiction asp 4 Stars Gritty, real, horrifying, hopeful. These are the words that can be used to describe To Stay Alive , which tells in short poems the fictionalized yet true story of Mary Ann Graves, a member of the tragic Donner Party. Brown tells the story as it is. While she manages to keep it engaging, she never sensationalizes, which really draws out the bleakness and monotony that these pioneers faced. It doesn't make the story dull. In fact, it manages to maintain the integrity of the nonfiction aspects of the story. This isn't a fun, light read. However, it's certainly a good one. While free verse poetry is not my ideal way to tell a story, it really works well here. While Mary Ann is a fairly young character, her voice remains mature. You can sense her emotions, feel her love for her brother Frank; she creates the tone, one I loved, one of horror and hunger and hope. To Stay Alive is a quick read, but definitely not a light one. Though it's short, it sticks, and still now I find myself wondering what I would have done if I had been fated to follow in Mary Ann's footsteps.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Y.

    4 1/2 stars.... Told in verse and from the point of view of a young survivor, To Stay Alive provides readers with the story of the ill-fated Donner party who met a gruesome and terrible fate as their wagon train made its journey west in the 1800s. The unique and beautiful way Skila Brown chose to tell this familiar and heartbreaking story was an interesting choice and one I enjoyed as each verse gave us snippets of what our main character was experiencing. I cannot even imagine how horrible it mu 4 1/2 stars.... Told in verse and from the point of view of a young survivor, To Stay Alive provides readers with the story of the ill-fated Donner party who met a gruesome and terrible fate as their wagon train made its journey west in the 1800s. The unique and beautiful way Skila Brown chose to tell this familiar and heartbreaking story was an interesting choice and one I enjoyed as each verse gave us snippets of what our main character was experiencing. I cannot even imagine how horrible it must have been. Overall, I thought it was a fascinating and emotional look at an infamous historical event told in a refreshing way. *ARC courtesy of Netgalley in exchange for honest review.*

  20. 5 out of 5

    Allyson

    Very well excecuted and incredibly compelling (thanks to the writing and the format of the book). The author did a marvelous job conveying the despair of Mary Ann and her traveling companions. Good for reluctant readers, but only ones who can handle the cannibalism towards the end (a very small portion of the book, though there is foreshadowing and prior knowledge to elude to where the story is going). The author's handling of cannibalism was so well done--readers will understand it was a heart- Very well excecuted and incredibly compelling (thanks to the writing and the format of the book). The author did a marvelous job conveying the despair of Mary Ann and her traveling companions. Good for reluctant readers, but only ones who can handle the cannibalism towards the end (a very small portion of the book, though there is foreshadowing and prior knowledge to elude to where the story is going). The author's handling of cannibalism was so well done--readers will understand it was a heart-wrenching and difficult decision the party had to make if they wanted to survive.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kimberly (kimberlee reads)

    I thought this was pretty well done for what it was. I am just not personally a fan of historical fiction or poetry. I read this because my students were interested in reading it for my book club elective. Personally, what fascinates me the most about the Donner party is what led them to cannibalism, so I was a little disappointed that it’s such a small part of the story. It appears for only maybe 10-15 pages very late in the book. Most of it is about their travels before the snow hits.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Abby Johnson

    A brutal survival story portraying the danger and desperation of the pioneers. Narrated in verse by Mary Ann Graves, a teen traveling with the Donner Party, this novel puts readers in her place. Traveling through the desert and the frozen mountains, resorting to desperate measures to survive. Hand this to fans of pioneer stories who have grown up and are looking for something a little edgier.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Mary Lee

    This will make an interesting pairing with Nathan Hale's Donner Dinner Party. It's chillingly evocative (literally -- I got cold reading it)!! It's hard to imagine the survivors going on to lead normal lives after all they went through. This will make an interesting pairing with Nathan Hale's Donner Dinner Party. It's chillingly evocative (literally -- I got cold reading it)!! It's hard to imagine the survivors going on to lead normal lives after all they went through.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

    Smart, clever, interesting, well done, poignant and deep while fast! What an awesome book!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jane Night

    Synopsis: Mary Graves and her family are heading to California to start a new life. Unfortunately, they become stuck in the Sierra Nevada during a blizzard and are forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. They are remembered as part of the ill fated Donner party. My rating: 3/5 I loved how well researched this book was. I did quite a bit of reading on the Donner party after enjoying this book and the facts as I researched matched up to what I'd read in the book. I also loved that so much of this Synopsis: Mary Graves and her family are heading to California to start a new life. Unfortunately, they become stuck in the Sierra Nevada during a blizzard and are forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. They are remembered as part of the ill fated Donner party. My rating: 3/5 I loved how well researched this book was. I did quite a bit of reading on the Donner party after enjoying this book and the facts as I researched matched up to what I'd read in the book. I also loved that so much of this book was focused on the events leading up to the family being caught in the snow. The first half of the book is about the journey towards California and that was part of the Donner party I hadn't heard much about. I'd read books about the party before but they usually focused on the events in the Sierra Nevada and not on all that led up to the party being stuck there. It took a surprising amount of mistakes and mishaps for the Donner party to have the tragic results that are now part of our history. It was a dominoes' effect of bad luck and poor choices that ended up in so much death and if even one event had gone differently in the events chain, we would not know who the Donner party was because their journey would have been like all the rest of those who traveled west. Instead, we know the Donners because of their tragedy. While I appreciated how accurate this book was, I actually wish it had followed a fictional character. This book follows a real member of the Donner party who was part of a large family. Because of that, the cast of characters we are supposed to care about is large and the fact the book is written in verse makes it difficult to connect to Mary's large family. This made the deaths of her family members less hard hitting. I felt sorry for Mary but I hadn't connected to the family members on a personal level so there wasn't the emotional punch to the gut there could have been if the book was told in prose or if the cast was smaller and I had more of a relationship with the individual characters. I appreciated the accuracy of the book even though it is a fictionalized account but I would have liked a harder emotional hit from the story. I felt like the book did a great job of showcasing the tragedy as a whole but didn't particularly do a good job of showing the impact of the tragedy on Mary Graves. When I pick up a fictionalized account of a true story I really want to connect with the characters and feel the pain they are going through and the horror of the situation. There are few true tales in our history that are more horrific than the Donner party and I just felt like the way the book was written put too much distance between the reader and the events which minimized the emotional impact. I wanted more from this. I liked the content and the accuracy but I wanted more feels with this read. It is the difference between "this terrible thing happened" and "this terrible thing happened to me." I wanted the latter but ended up with the former. Additionally, I didn't love the verse. The book is written in freestyle verse and I didn't think that some if it sounded all that great. That is just personal preference and I am not a huge poetry reader so perhaps a more trained eye would notice beauty I don't. I can't really recommend this book but if stories told in verse are your jam maybe give it a go. There is merit to this book. I just wanted more than it delivered. Can anyone recommend me a more character driven Donner Party story? I really want to read more fictionalized accounts of this tragedy but ones that will give me the emotional depth I found lacking in this book.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Elise

    4 1/2 stars. This review does contain spoilers! I’ve only just recently gotten into reading more books that are written in verse, after I read Ellen Hopkin’s masterpiece Crank years ago, and I’ve always found that though they are easier to read in one or two sittings, they are able to hold and describe such heavy material with such grace and ease. To Stay Alive is another key example of this, as Skila Brown uses poetry to describe Mary Ann Graves’s journey with the Donner Party to the California i 4 1/2 stars. This review does contain spoilers! I’ve only just recently gotten into reading more books that are written in verse, after I read Ellen Hopkin’s masterpiece Crank years ago, and I’ve always found that though they are easier to read in one or two sittings, they are able to hold and describe such heavy material with such grace and ease. To Stay Alive is another key example of this, as Skila Brown uses poetry to describe Mary Ann Graves’s journey with the Donner Party to the California in 1846. Mary Ann is 19 at the start of the story and over the course of a brutal winter season becomes almost an entirely different person, and it hurts to see her go through such pain and suffering along with the rest of her family. For a 19 year old in 1846, Mary Ann certainly has a lot of spunk, seeing as she openly tells a man to his face that he isn’t worth two cents and injures his pride not once but twice after this. She’s also not too convinced that the journey to California will be worth it, but puts her utmost trust in her father and the rest of her family, and even does some of the work of the men by pushing wagons out of the mud and chopping logs to fuel the fires. She’s a strong character against the backdrop of a time in American history when women weren’t necessarily supposed to be out and about doing the heavy lifting, but it’s certainly a welcome narrative in a story that is doomed to end in tragedy. I will say that Brown knows how to keep her tone consistent throughout the story, as even in the opening pages you can tell that this isn’t going to be a happy tale like something out of “The Oregon Trail” (not that that game was entirely happy but you get the idea). There’s a bleakness in her writing; in how she sets up the atmosphere of the travels of the Graves family and those who come to join them after, and this bleakness really settles in when Mary Ann and her group are forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive the brutal winter out in the Sierra Nevada. And what’s more is that Brown takes an event that actually happened, one that has really only been documented by letters and diary passages, and recreates the most believable interpretation of history I’ve seen. And all of this was done in free-verse poetry. The shortness of the poems themselves allows for readers to easily identify and consume what’s happening and leaves you wanting more and more and before you know it you’re halfway through the book already! The supporting cast of To Stay Alive is nothing short of memorable, seeing as Mary Ann separates from the larger group in order to seek help across the mountains and therefore cuts the list of characters short for the remaining half of the novel. It always surprises me when authors decide to pluck at your heartstrings and hurt minor characters, as that is exactly what happened here and I was devastated when I found out that Frank, Mary Ann’s younger brother (and certainly the one she was closest with) had perished in the end. It affected me so deeply that I could only imagine what Mary Ann herself probably thought when she heard the news all those years ago. I will have to say though that true to history the men in this book were ridiculously stupid sometimes, what with John seemingly flirting with Mary Ann from afar despite the fact that she really didn’t want anything to do with him, and then half the party decided to split up to find help. But the women such as Mary Ann’s sister Sarah, and her new friend Amanda, were endearing and I wanted to know if they were going to end up all right in the end. To Stay Alive is not a happy story. It is full of death, sorrow, loss, and anguish, but despite all of that it is a riveting narrative of one girl’s experience on a journey to a new home that didn’t exactly go as planned and certainly left everyone involved eternally changed. I would highly recommend any fan of free-verse literature or 1800s American history to pick this up as it’ll certainly sit with you long after you finish it.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Shelby

    This book is a heart wrenching tale of a young girl, Mary Ann Graves (19), and her large family of 12. They begin a journey during the Spring of 1847 in Illinois with the intent of moving their lives to Sutter Fort in California. The novel starts out with a very hopeful attitude. All the members of the party are excited and anxious to begin their journey with promises of a better life; one with no harsh winters or cold weather. Along the trek, there are several issues that the party encounters. This book is a heart wrenching tale of a young girl, Mary Ann Graves (19), and her large family of 12. They begin a journey during the Spring of 1847 in Illinois with the intent of moving their lives to Sutter Fort in California. The novel starts out with a very hopeful attitude. All the members of the party are excited and anxious to begin their journey with promises of a better life; one with no harsh winters or cold weather. Along the trek, there are several issues that the party encounters. Among the typical things we would consider are Native American attacks, food shortages, dry hikes across the desert, and much more. Once the reader reads farther into the book, they are immersed in the lives of the characters. The author does such a beautiful job describing scenery, pain, and struggle that the reader can place themselves right in the book! Ending tragically with most of the party falling way to terrible deaths in the Winter through the Rocky Mountains, the book provides an informational story to the reader. Each of the poems are designed in a way that further develops the emotion portrayed on each page. Following the end of the actual story itself, are pages containing the factual information about the Graves' and Donner parties. I would DEFINITELY use this novel in a fifth-grade class room by integrating it into history and writing lessons, as well as just a read aloud. The story could be used as a springboard to spark research projects about the time period. The poetry style also gives way to writing pieces because it leaves some imagination to the reader. The story is very captivating and will absolutely capture students' attentions, which is why I would use it as a read aloud in my classroom! Overall, this was a phenomenal story, written beautifully by Skila Brown.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Sandy Benitez

    I've always had this weird fascination with the story of the Donner Party but also an interest in stories of survival. I was so excited to rediscover this book again (forgetting that I had it shelved) until I happened to come across it on Amazon while looking for books. This book was also priced quite reasonably and I got free shipping as well which is always a plus. The cover for this book is absolutely beautiful (to me). I love the starkness of it, the white snow against the green pine trees an I've always had this weird fascination with the story of the Donner Party but also an interest in stories of survival. I was so excited to rediscover this book again (forgetting that I had it shelved) until I happened to come across it on Amazon while looking for books. This book was also priced quite reasonably and I got free shipping as well which is always a plus. The cover for this book is absolutely beautiful (to me). I love the starkness of it, the white snow against the green pine trees and the black silhouettes of a woman and two men trekking across the terrain. This is the first time I've read what is known as a "verse novel". Basically a novel that is told in poetic form and it didn't disappoint. On my first reading, I read the first 100 pages then put the book down. It was so hard because the story was truly fascinating but I have sad, aching eyes and reading much longer in one sitting usually always involves a throbbing headache the next day. The first poem titled The Dress is a great intro to the beginning of Mary Ann Graves' account of making the dangerous trek to California with her large family. What should have been a relatively safe journey at the start of Spring, turned into a variety of unexpected events such as an early snowfall which in turn had a domino effect concerning lack of food, the freezing temps, etc. They were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. The poems that spoke of this weren't grotesque or anything like that but written in a way that was honest and real. I would recommend this verse novel to those who enjoy tales of survival, historical novels, and poetry.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Baker

    "To Stay Alive" by Skila Brown had me sitting on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading it. This story is about a particular family that was a part of the Donner party traveling from Illinois to California. This particular story is from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves, a 19 year old girl traveling to California with her parents and 8 siblings. The trip starts out fine but takes a turn for the worse when they decide to take a difficult shortcut that has yet to be tested adding a m "To Stay Alive" by Skila Brown had me sitting on the edge of my seat the entire time I was reading it. This story is about a particular family that was a part of the Donner party traveling from Illinois to California. This particular story is from the point of view of Mary Ann Graves, a 19 year old girl traveling to California with her parents and 8 siblings. The trip starts out fine but takes a turn for the worse when they decide to take a difficult shortcut that has yet to be tested adding a month to their journey. However, an unexpected snow storm comes sooner than the travelers wanted, creating hazardous conditions forcing the family to make camp. The family resorts to cannibalism towards the end until they can be rescued. The cover of the book gives readers the idea of what the terrain looked like going through the journey across America. It shows the snowy mountains and the snow covered trees. The cover contains 3 people spread out walking towards the bottom of a hill, one looks like a girl, possibly Mary Ann Graves herself. The cover is not the most colorful =, but gives the message of what the book will be about. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend this to others to read. The storyline is great but also adds history in it with the benefit of learning. I would recommend this book to older aged middle schoolers, probably the youngest would be 5th or 6th grade. The book is a harder read being in poetic form but could also be understood by middle schoolers. Overall this is a great book and I would have it as an option to read for my classes in the future.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jacki

    To Stay Alive was not my favorite book for a couple of reasons. First, this topic is not really something that I enjoy. The whole “westward expansion” storyline is just not interesting to me, and I wonder if it’s because I read a lot of it when I was younger? (Too much Oregon Trail? :) ) Secondly, this is kind of similar to nonfiction for me, in the sense that poetry by itself isn’t necessarily a genre, but a form. We just came off of historical fiction week, and this book seemed to fit in that To Stay Alive was not my favorite book for a couple of reasons. First, this topic is not really something that I enjoy. The whole “westward expansion” storyline is just not interesting to me, and I wonder if it’s because I read a lot of it when I was younger? (Too much Oregon Trail? :) ) Secondly, this is kind of similar to nonfiction for me, in the sense that poetry by itself isn’t necessarily a genre, but a form. We just came off of historical fiction week, and this book seemed to fit in that grouping to me, so now I am a little HF’ed out. Lastly, I have a really hard time understanding what poetry means. I have always thought of it as traditional stuff, like limericks and acrostics, or poems that have meter, rhyming, etc. This book had very few instances of such poetry, though I did notice a shape poem here and there. All of that being said, I do think there is an audience for this book. I started to pick up the pace more when it got to the Winter section and it turned into more of a survival story. I think that aspect would appeal to individuals that like an adventure or survival-type story, although I would preface that they have to get through the background information part of the story first. People that have an interest in the topic of expansion would like this as well. The historical notes in the back are educational and a great addition, and allow for further research into the topic if interested.

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